Laura Landro is an assistant managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, who wrote a well-reviewed book about her own struggle with breast cancer.
In her column today, she addresses something lots of people are worried about these days: cold and flu season. She cites good research in recommending lots of fruits and vegetables, limiting saturated fat, avoiding processed and junk foods, exercising, and maintaining a normal weight.
As cold-and-flu season arrives, so do the pitches for products that claim to increase the body's natural immunity and ward off infection. And with alarming reports about avian flu and a threatened global pandemic, it may be tempting to load up on mega doses of vitamins, minerals and herbal supplements as an added precaution.
But as scientists delve more deeply into how the immune system works, they are finding evidence that it is the complex interaction of nutrients in food that helps the body build its defenses against disease and infection, in part by controlling some types of inflammation that can weaken the immune system. Single nutrients and cocktails of nutrients consumed alone can't provide the same benefit, they warn, and large doses of some supplements such as selenium, zinc, vitamin A, vitamin B6 and vitamin E may even harm and suppress the immune response.
The best defense against influenza is getting vaccinated as soon as possible -- and the most important way to prevent the spread of colds is frequent hand washing. But experts say that following the most basic tenets of good nutrition -- consuming a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fats, and eliminating highly processed and junk foods -- can actually help ward off illness.
"There is lot people can do with proper nutrition to improve their chances of warding off the flu or making the disease less pathogenic," or harmful, says Simin Nikbin Meydani, director of the nutritional immunology laboratory at Tufts University's Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging.
Exercise and maintaining a normal weight are equally important, Dr. Meydani adds, because obesity can also impair immune function and make people more susceptible to many types of infections. Tufts researchers have shown that moderate caloric restriction in humans appears to be beneficial for immunity.
Dr. Fuhrman's take on all this? He could talk all day. His books are essentially all about how to use the lessons of the best research to get your immune system performing at a high level. Certainly his approach is consistent with the core recommendations: lots of fruits and vegetables, limiting saturated fat, avoiding processed and junk foods, exercising, and maintaining a normal weight--but he makes many more specific recommendations about what exactly to eat for optimum health.
For instance, in Disease-Proof Your Child he discusses phytochemicals, which are a recently discovered class of more than 12,000 nutrients that are the subject of a lot of new research. Phytonutrients do all sorts of good things, from detoxifying certain harmful compounds, deactivating free radicals, and enabling DNA-repair mechanisms. From the book:
We cannot acquire a sufficient amount and diversity of phytochemicals in supplements; we must get them from real food, especially because many of them have not been discovered yet. When we pass up eating fruits and vegetables, we are turning our backs on a host of nutrients that can keep us from developing disease.
(In another part of Disease-Proof Your Child he adds that "cold breakfast cereals have as much phytochemical nutrition as the cardboard box they are found in.")
In case you needed another reason to eat your broccoli... (And what if you don't like broccoli? There are plenty of good, healthy recipes in his books, and right here on DiseaseProof.)